Why Columbus Day? How A Wrong Turn Became A National Holiday…

For all you non-Americans, this week we had a holiday in the US.  It’s called Columbus Day.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday, meaning government offices and banks are closed (although many companies don’t shut down).   It was an opportunity to reflect on the efforts that resulted in the creation of our nation, plus it gave the labor movement an extra holiday.

Officially, Columbus Day commemorates the  Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 (although he thought he’d landed in India).  Almost every American school child knows the rhyme: “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He did sail the ocean blue, or blueish, but when he landed on San Salvador (in what is now The Bahamas).  In one of the most giant “oops, my bad” ever, he thought he’d landed in India.  While he didn’t quite land in India (as planned), he developed a European awareness of the American continents (Leif Ericson had already sailed from Europe to the Americas so Columbus wasn’t the first).

In the 1800’s, Columbus Day was (unofficially) celebrated in a number of cities (NYC and Baltimore).  Italian Americans, who for many years were discriminated against in the US in part because of their Catholicism, were proud of their Italian forefather and instrumental in having it declared a holiday.  For them, it was a way of celebrating Italian-American heritage.  Today, many see Columbus’ arrival as marking the beginning of problems for the Native Americans (who were already here) and the onslaught on their culture.  Thinking about it in those terms, the holiday gets a whole lot more complex.

Schoolchildren learn about the “discovery” of the Americas.  Bankers enjoy their day off.  A US friend joked that they would celebrate by: going in the wrong direction, not recognizing their destination, inaccurately reporting where they’ve been inaccurately upon their return, and do it all on someone else’s dime (also known as spending someone else’s money)!

By the way… I hear some countries in Latin America close down for the whole week to celebrate Columbus Day (known as Día de la Razain, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad, Fiesta Nacional in Spain, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural in Argentina and Día de las Américas in Uruguay).  Geez… the US is getting the shaft.

Advertisements

Good Friday Funeral Procession In Romont, Switzerland

We stopped by Romont, Switzerland to view a funeral procession on Good Friday.  Replete with mourners, it takes place in the medieval old town on cobblestone streets past a ancient buildings.

The ceremony begins with a mass and a reading from the Bible of the Passion of Christ. When the funeral procession is mentioned, the congregation exits the church to begin their procession through the streets of the old hilltop town.  The parade is led by a penitent in a black gown, wearing a black hood and carrying a large cross.  A young girl portraying the Virgin Mary follows.  Mourners are clothed and veiled in black come next.  Some of them carry the symbols resting on scarlet cushions.  They include: a crown of thorns, a whip, nails, a hammer, tongs, and St. Veronica‘s shroud.

Happy Valentine’s Day

While Valentine’s Day isn’t anywhere close to as big in Switzerland as it is in the US, it’s still possible to find signs of it.  It’s kind of nice because there is no way I would go out to dinner in the US on Valentine’s Day.  The restaurants are too crowded and it somehow seems stilted.  Here, where things aren’t quite as commercialized (or mainstream), it’s quite nice…until you get the Swiss-sized bill and are reminded why you don’t do this very often.   Oh well, at least the chocolates are to die for.

 

Epiphany/Three Kings Day

We Three Kings

We Three Kings (Photo credit: pixieclipx)

Once again, I’m ashamed to say that I was in my late twenties before I ever even know this holiday existed (commemorating the day when the three kings presented their gifts to the baby Jesus).  Here’s how they celebrate it here.

P1060042

P1060042 (Photo credit: keepps)

You knew it. You knew there had to be one. You were right; they have a special pastry.   Every holiday here seems to have its own special pastry and this is not exception.  It is a ring of buns, one of which contains small plastic kings.  If you get that roll, you win a crown and the right to tell everyone what to do for the rest of the day.  Carolers dressed as three kings also roam the streets singing (known as Star Singing).

The bread ...

The bread … (Photo credit: pedro_cerqueira)

Who doesn’t love a great loaf of bread?  Before we moved, we would sometimes go to our neighborhood’s French bakery and buy a nice loaf of fresh bread.

Swiss bread and chocolate

Swiss bread and chocolate (Photo credit: ellengwallace)

Since we moved, we have been buying great bread at local patisseries.  It is made fresh each morning and we buy a loaf to eat over the next 2-3 days while  while it is still fresh.  Ymmmm.  This is dangerous because you have to go there several times a week (only a block away).  When it’s no longer really fresh, we feed it to the ducks on Lake Geneva (except for when our niece visited when we bought loaves to feed to them).

Schmutzli, St. Nicholas Vigilante Style

I am ashamed to admit that until I met my husband, I didn’t even know the Feast of St. Nicholas holiday existed.  They celebrate it in the German parts of Switzerland with St. Nick and his heavy, Schmutzli.

Drawing of Schmutzli and Santa from http://2.bp.blogspot.com

Unlike the holiday in the US, in Switzerland St. Nicholas brings his thug buddy, Schmutzli, with him.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, instead of reindeer, St. Nick usually shows up with donkey.  Schmutzli is a dirty guy dressed in brown hooded cloak and smeared with soot.  Unlike jolly old St. Nick,  Schmutzli traditionally beat naughty children with a switch and carried them off in a sack to be eaten in the woods.   Now, he’s a little bit less of a felon/child abductor.  He passes out the goodies and delivers stern lectures on proper behavior.  It’s pretty unique and highly entertaining, therefore, I’m giving Schmutzli two thumbs up.

Schmutzli and a donkey from http://www.eselmueller.ch/Kurse.php

Before he reformed his naughty ways, Schmutzli might have been even worse than that (see the illustration below).  Then again, who’s seen Bad Santa.

Schmutzli looking a little more dangerous than Santa who slides down a chimney and steals a kiss from Mommy – from http://2.bp.blogspot.com

By the way, if you are into metaphors, unlike in the US, St. Nicholas is slim in Switzerland.

Samichlaus (aka St. Nicholas or Santa Claus) with Schmutzli and donkey from http://rooschristoph.blogspot.com/2010/12/knecht-ruprecht-schmutzli-co.html

I’ve Been Hanging Around The Mistletoe. Want Proof? Here’s A Top 10 List.

We’ve noticed these balls of leaves in the trees since we moved to Switzerland.  It’s all over the place here.  Only after a year did I lean what they were… mistletoe!   With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it was the perfect time to talk about these strange green balls.

The top ten things you may not have know Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album):

1.  It is a parasitic plant whose roots invade a tree’s bark, allowing the mistletoe to absorb the tree’s nutrients.   Sometimes, it harms a tree and causing deformities in the branches, but it’s not in the mistletoe’s interest to kill its host.  If its tree dies, it dies.

2.  Mistletoe isn’t a complete drain on the host tree (usually oak, apple, hawthorn, or poplar).  Its small green leaves give the host plant with energy through photosynthesis.

3.  Mistletoe is aggressive.  A mistletoe plant to grow on top of another mistletoe plant.  It’s also “aggressive” to your digestive system so don’t eat the berries…regardless of how many glasses of Egg Nog you’ve consumed.

4.  Birds, however, eat Mistletoe’s berries and well, everybody poops.  Eventually, they eventually leave their droppings where they hang out, on tree branches.  Their droppings contain the seeds (which have a sticky coating), which sprout their roots into the tree branch.

5.  Although it’s a European plant, birds travel.  It grows down the eastern Atlantic  coast of the United States, from New Jersey to Florida.

6.   You can grow your own.  Click on this link if you want to indulge your inner Martha Stewart.

7.  Kissing.  Smooching.  Tonsil Hockey.  Snogging.  While it’s got as much credibility as an urban myth, why tempt fate?  Legend has it that couples who kiss underneath the mistletoe will have good luck (for the traditionally minded marriage and a long, happy life together), but standing underneath it and not doing so is bad luck.  In any case, it’s the perfect excuse for a little PDA…and to invite George Clooney to your holiday festivities.

8.  Although American’s know Mistletoe from Christmas Carols, other cultures saw it as a much more powerful symbol.  Ancient Druids used it for performing miracles (perhaps I should climb a tree and get myself some), providing fertility, to healing diseases and protecting people from witchcraft.  Yep.  I definitely need to get me some. especially since…

9.  Britain’s Druids weren’t the only ones who were hip to  its powers.   Vikings believed mistletoe had the power to raise humans from the dead!   When the Zombie apocalypse starts, you know the cause…

10.  Oh yeah, and the Bieb’s like’s it so much that he sings about it.  Here’s a link to Justin Bieber’s song Mistletoe on YouTube.  Happy Holidays!

Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter E...

Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter Egg roll. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be Thankful For Your Friends But Avoid The Friendship Cup

The object above isn’t the holy grail, an objet d’art, vase, fancy pipe or some kind of crazy teapot, it’s a friendship cup.  As Thanksgiving approaches, one of the things we are most grateful for this year is all of the friends we’ve made in Switzerland.

A friendship cup (also known as Coppa dell’amicizia, grolla or grolle ) is a round container with a lid and multiple spouts made of turned wood.  It is used for drinking special hot adult beverages with friends.  There’s a saying, “he who drinks it alone, will choke.”  Here’s how it works.

Gather your friends, or nearby people you want to become friends (because after you finish one of these you will be.  Traditionally you have at least one more person than the number of spouts on the cup.  Why?   You end up sharing and drinking from a different spout as the cup gets passed around the table.  People don’t worry about the germs for two reasons.  First, it’s your friends.  Secondly, what they put in the cup is strong enough that it could probably be classified as some sort of disinfectant.   You pass the cup around your group, not setting it down until it’s empty.  Trust me when I tell you that this is easier said than done.

We first encountered it when we visited the Aosta Valley in Italy.  Thank goodness no one whipped out a camera that night…  The friendship cup is an after dinner (or later) tradition in Lombardy and the rest of the Italian Alps.  It comes from the “Soldats de la Neige” (which translates into Soldiers of the Snow) who acted as guides to travelers in this rough terrain.   They needed extra “energy” to survive in the cold.   Having had some, it does seem to warm you up.  The drink’s popularity spread to include everyone who needed a little pick me up to brave the cold.

What’s in a Friendship Cup?  Valdostana coffee, a liquor ( usually Génépy, but it can be plain or fruit grappa, cognac, Cointreau, red wine or cum), sugar and spices.  Sometimes people add butter and orange peels.  Just make sure you have friends around to drink it with you.  It sounds delightful.  It’s not.  It’s Trouble.  That’s right, trouble with a capital “t.”

So as Thanksgiving approaches, thanks guys, we’re raising our glasses (or beers from the snow) to you and giving thanks, just don’t expect us to bust out the friendship cup.   Here’s to you, Cheers!  Kippis!  Chin Chin!  Santé!  Prost!  Slàinte!  Skål!  L’Chaim!  Na zdrowie!

Easter In Sweden

Easter celebrations in secular Sweden are comparable to Christmas for the secular American.  While some attend church on Easter Sunday, for a majority of Swedes many of the celebrations have little to do with Christian beliefs.  Easter is a big deal in Sweden and the entire country partakes in their holiday traditions.   We were in Sweden weeks before Easter, but signs of it were already everywhere.   The Swedes seemed to look forward to Easter as a sign of spring.

I asked a nice lady at the National Museum gift shop about branches with colored feathers attached to them.  In the 12 hours I’d spent in Sweden, I’d seen them countless times.  She explained to me that Easter in Sweden is kind of like Halloween in the US.  In Sweden, children dress up as witches, paint their faces, carry brooms and knock on their neighbor’s doors for treats.

The schedule is a bit different than in the US.  Many of the traditions predate Christianity and were incorporated into Easter celebrations over the years:

  • Palmsöndag (Palm Sunday) Instead of picking up palm leaves or other branches from the church, Swedes pick up pussy willows.  They are also used as an Easter decoration.
  • Svarta måndag (black Monday) is when chimneys were traditionally swept.
  • The Thursday before Easter, Skärtorsdag (Holy Thursday), Swedish children dress up as påskkärringar (witches) and go trick-or-treating…well, sort of.   Skärtorsdagen is the day of the Last Supper.  Swedes considered it a dangerous day to be out, because the old spirits were let loose.  The night was a time for the devil, who wanted you to sign a contract exchanging for riches for your soul.  Hence the witches…

  • Good Friday is more appropriately named in Swedish Långfredag – Long Friday.  No fun may be had on this day (to mourn of the crucifixion of Christ).  In fact, public entertainment was prohibited until 1969.   The fun recommences on Saturday morning.
  • Saturday night is Påskafton (the Christmas eve of Easter), a day for feasting and eating.  Families sit down to dinners of eggs and lamb, representing the fertility of the spring and the rebirth of the year after the long winter.   They also have special crackers and exchange cards.  Traditionally children make drawings of witches, chickens and eggs accompanied by a few words.  In the late afternoon, bonfires are lit in many areas to scare off the evil influences.
  • During Easter week in Sweden, it is taboo to get married or baptize a child.

By the way, Swedes also have beautifully decorated Easter eggs, both decorative and edible.

The Spaghetti Tree Hoax, Aka Happy April Fool’s Day From Switzerland

Courtesy of the BBC

After a bit of research I determined that they celebrate April Fool’s Day in Switzerland.  Although it isn’t a holiday like Swiss National Day, St. Bartholomew’s Day, EscalandeFasnacht or Tschaggatta, so government offices and schools are open (or would be if it fell on a weekday), they do play practical jokes.   I hope you forgive me for my last post on the southern Switzerland’s spaghetti harvest, it was a bit of an April Fool’s Day joke.  Sorry.

One of the most famous April Fool’s Day Jokes involves Switzerland…in a way.  The British news show, Panorama, broadcast a three-minute news segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland on April 1, 1957.   The previous post was the story verbatim.  People swallowed it hook, line and sinker.   It generated an enormous response and became one of the most popular April Fool’s Day hoaxes of all time.

In honor of April Fool’s Day, I thought I would explain how they came up with the idea and managed to pull it off so successfully.  The spaghetti harvest prank was the brainchild of Charles de Jaeger, a cameraman for the BBC and jokester.  Growing up, one of his teachers told the class, “boys, you’re so stupid, you’d believe me if I told you that spaghetti grows on trees.”   How could he not turn that into a joke on film?  He pitched the idea to several bosses over the years with no success.

In the 1950’s, Panorama was the BBC’s leading news program with ten million viewers.  It aired every Monday night.  When de Jaeger realized that April Fool’s Day fell on Monday night, he shared his idea with the writer David Wheeler who loved it.  They convinced Panorama’s editor, Michael Peacock, to produce the segment (with a budget of only £100).  Peacock agreed, but insisted it be kept a secret, fearing the BBC would veto the project.

When they went to Switzerland to film the segment, it was cold, misty and trees hadn’t blossomed.  They traveled to temperate Lake Lugano in Italian Switzerland where there were evergreen Laurel trees.  They hired some local girls in their national costume string 20 pounds of uncooked spaghetti from trees at a hotel in Castiglione.  He filmed climbing ladders carrying wicker baskets, filling them with spaghetti, and laying it out dry in the sun.  He also filmed his actors eating a spaghetti feast.  The footage was then edited into a three-minute segment with background music.

At the end of Panaroma’s April 1st broadcast, the show’s highly respected, eminently dignified and solemn anchor, Richard Dimbleby, introduced the segment, adding the necessary gravitas.  He made a great straight man, without cracking a smile started the report with “And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps.”  They then showed the prepared footage.  At the end, Dimbleby closed the program with, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April,” emphasizing “this first day of April.”

The BBC immediately began receiving calls about the segment.  Some were complaints about such frivolity on a news program, some were to settle arguments about the origins of spaghetti,  and still others were inquires about where viewers could purchase their own spaghetti bush.

The hoax worked for several reasons:

  • Richard Dimbleby was so distinguished, authoritative, and revered that people took everything he said as true.
  • At the time, spaghetti was not a widely eaten in Britain.  When it was, it was it often came from tins. It was a foreign dish, an exotic delicacy.
  • It was pre-internet, encyclopedia Britannica didn’t even mention spaghetti and so it was hard to research and/or verify the origins of spaghetti.

Even the head of the BBC Ian Jacob, fell victim to the scheme.  Nevertheless, like much of the British public, he was a big fan of the hoax.   It became legendary and Johnny Carson even rebroadcast it.  You can see it for yourself by clicking this link to YouTube.

In case you were wondering, to start your own spaghetti tree, place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.

Bumper Spaghetti Harvest In Southern (Italian) Switzerland

This year has been a great year for spaghetti.   The success of the this year’s crop was attributed to a strong freeze followed by a mild winter south of the Alps and to the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.

Courtesy of BBC

In Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual.

Courtesy of BBC

But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop.

The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There is always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.

Courtesy of BBC

Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair.

Courtesy of BBC

Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depradations have caused much concern in the past.

After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine air. Many people are very puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced in such uniform lengths. This is the result of many years of patient endeavour by plant breeders who suceeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.

Courtesy of BBC

Now the harvest is marked by a traditional meal. Toasts to the new crop are drunk in these boccalinos, then the waiters enter bearing the ceremonial dish. This is, of course, spaghetti — picked early in the day, dried in the sun, and so brought fresh from garden to table at the very peak of condition. For those who love this dish, there is nothing like real home-grown spaghetti.

This story is verbatim from the BBC.  Thanks. BBC.